Wow… I’m in the iFi forum… Posting about equipment again. WHAT??? That’s friggin AWESOME!!!
First I want to start by saying, I have been itching to write this review for a long while, but have been busy as a mofo. It is quite the conundrum to be on this side of the keyboard, so to speak, rather than telling Y’all about the latest greatest thing a month before it’s release like I did when I worked for iFi, I'm now writing a review a long while after the latest kit has been released. Being cooped up for International- 'Don't do Anything' forced Holiday, gives me ample excuse to review this badass kit.
I’ve owned the unit for several months, all the while wondering if I should write a review or not. Going back and forth was frustrating, will I look like a mere shill for praising it? Or will people take my review at face value? I almost wish I didn’t have a back history with iFi that throws into question whether I can give an unbiased opinion of this piece. That said, the length of time it’s taken me to decide whether to write a review or not, has given me ample opportunity to live with the Zen dac for a while and really grok it’s abilities and sonics A to Z.
When I first heard that THE John ‘Mother F'ing’ Curl had a hand in the development of this product combined with the genius of Thorstein Losch I just about stole the demo unit for the iFi table at RMAF. I could not wait to get my hands on this bad boy.
Priced at a mere $129.99 free prime 2 day shipped via Amazon, you should buy one just to keep up with this review and what I’m talking about. Don’t worry, I’ll wait….
....Did you get it? …Good, now that you have the unit in hand consider this a walk through from this point forward:Wat iz it?
The Zen Dac is a deceptively simply piece of kit. At first glance it’s a sub $150 headphone amp. But, please don’t be daft, this is iFi we’re talking about. Their gear is ALWAYS way more versatile than just a ‘this’ or ‘that’ product. I promise you, the Zen Dac does both ‘THIS’ and ‘THAT’ with aplomb. ‘THIS’
What is ‘THIS’? This is a really great option for a desktop headphone amplifier/USB DAC. It’s about as plug-and-play as they come. You plug this in to a desktop computer, or a laptop on the go and you instantly have a fine setup. And unlike most synonymous products, the Zen Dac is not nearly as fussy or gear specific as other options. It works with a plethora of headphone types. IEMs to full sized cans, it does it all while remaking relatively simple.
That said, for the snutty dial twisters among you, there are options such as utilizing an external power supply and bypassing USB power, this will likely result in better sound quality with the 2.1mm/5.5 barrel 5V DC jack. Or if you have a DAP that cannot power anything via USB OTG you have the ability to use a usb Anker style battery for power if necessary with a usb to dc adaptor.
You can run a pair of budget IEMs using a 3.5mm to 6.3mm adaptor (not included) or a full sized set of Meze Empyreans rocking a Pentaconn balanced connector (Meze Empyreans’ also not included). And yes, even a relatively fussy pair of HD6XXs that are a bit power hungry.
You just might mistakenly swear to whatever Hifi deity you pray to that this is an excellent sub $600 desktop system. If you roll the synergistic come-out of 7 (cough cough the HD6XXs via pentaconn, just sayin’), you might even hear something that strikes well above the $1k mark. ‘THAT’
Aside from a plug-and-play beast for headphones, you also have a damn good Dac/Pre-amp combo. The Zen Dac rocks a set of RCA outputs with both variable and fixed options. For the picky audiophile whom already has the equipment rack, vinyl stash, and speakers big enough to warrant your own sound ordinance warning, this makes a no brainer for an awesome start to an office get up. I used this at my desk job for almost 3 months and I can say, Mick Jagger was wrong, for a ‘dumb grab’ priced piece of gear I derived so much satisfaction from the Zen Dac I can’t believe it.
Can the Zen Dac play with the Big Boys? The Meze Empyreans seem to think so! ‘The Good’
Ok, first and foremost, let’s talk about sonics. The Zen Dac has a smoothness, refinement and confidence about it that is refreshing. I never found myself gagging at shrillness or digititous. The sound quality builds on what you’d expect from iFi.
For this review I wanted to listen to sultry female vocals so I settled on a Tom Waits singing ‘Temptation’ on the album Franks Wild Years. To borrow the lead line from the song ‘Rusted brandy in a diamond glass, everything is made from dreams.’ That is exactly what the Zen Dac portrays. A great sounding setup that allows you to escape from the mediocrity of cheap desktop headphone systems.
Decent levels of nuance, great vocal clarity and high frequency sound that doesn’t induce cringe. In fact, I would go as far to say treble is refined and balanced.
Bass is damn good for this level. You won’t get the same dynamic gut punch you have with the iCan Pro, but let’s not kid ourselves here, this is not in the same category as sub $3k options. All that said, if it’s natural bass response isn’t enough, there is the new ‘truebass’ option that gives a boost to the low end for those fat bottom girl types.
While it is mostly good, I did find that the truebass tuning can over blow some tracks. Turning off truebass in these instances never sounded anemic. In fact bloat was mostly an issue with ￼especially bass heavy music.
Feature-wise the Zen Dac is uncharacteristically simple compared to, say, the iDSD Micro. The front panel is simplified to a gorgeous volume knob center stage, single ended 6.3-1/4” jack flanked by a Pentagon balanced jack on the right. And On the left you have the “power match” option and “truebass” option. That’s it. Simple yet useful. ￼
On the connector side of the device, It blows my mind that I can listen to a balanced output for as inexpensive as this thing is. And the increase in sound quality from single ended to balanced is obvious. Better bass, stronger dynamics, power delivery, and an increase in overall sound quality. Single ended and balanced at $130. Let that sink in.
Do you have difficult to drive headphones? There is the ability to change the gain with a feature dubbed ‘power match’ that boosts sound output for big boys or allows a lower noise floor and reduced gain for IEMs. Power match does a good job of reducing noise and gain for IEMS, but I have to be blunt, this is not the end all for all sensitive IEMs. In fact my Campfire Atlas IIs required the 2.5 mm Balanced IEMatch along with a 2.5-pentaconn adaptor to eliminate the noise floor that was still present with ‘power match’ engaged. If you find yourself noticing hiss with the Zen Dac, buy an IEMatch, it’s that simple. If you don’t already own an IEMatch for your sensitive IEMs buy one, you won’t regret it.
Back of the DAC, Sorry for the blown out pic, hard angle.‘The Bad’
For less than a months supply of Lattes it is imperfect. GASP!!! What didn’t I like? This might seem like a minor quibble, but I found myself at times frustrated that I couldn’t use the Zen dac with analog inputs. I pined for a simple coax Spdif input (hint hint, no way to plug in the Zen Blue) It’s strictly a USB Dac affair. For inputs, you can’t utilize it for anything more than that.
Both a great USB Dac and an excellent basic preamp/pass-through for an amp or higher end headphone amp none the less.
Aside from that, there is definitely a discernible noise floor with some sensitive headphones. In other words for $130 it can only work so many miracles.
Now, the only hardware functionality issue I had is it seems that the pentaconn input for headphones is quite temperamental. I have three different pentaconn capable cables all with different brand connectors. They all work with my Sony DAP without so much as a minor connection issue, but the Zen Dac I need to rotate the pentaconn connector *just so* to make it happy. Otherwise it might cut out in the left channel. Again, this is not the result of a fussy male end, that works just fine in other situations ('a likely excuse...' she replied) it appears the pentaconn jack on the Zen Dac just ain't happy with any of them. ‘The Ugly’
Ok, I don’t get it.
Raise your hand if you have any gear at all that utilizes a pentaconn connector for an INPUT. No? Not a single solitary person reading this has a pentaconn input on any device????
Well the Zen Dac has the solution to something that I’m pretty sure nobody needs. Yep, that’s right a friggin’ pentaconn output on the back for line level or variable output. Why? I don’t know. I wish I could elucidate you but I literally can’t find a single thing on the planet that uses a pentaconn for an input. Sorry, this is a completely useless feature.
Without DIYing a pentaconn to XLR adaptor a pentaconn output is a solution without a problem. Who knows, maybe time will make a liar out of me on this topic, but I just don’t see pentaconn becoming any sort of standard for anything other than headphone connectors. I would gladly give up the pentaconn output for a coax SPDIF input. That would allow me to stack the currently unstackable Zen Dac with the Zen Blue.
Zen Dac with the Campfire Atlas IIsConclusion
Sometimes big things come in little packages. If you’re using the headphone output on your desktop computer or laptop, for the love of God stop! Buy the Zen Dac, it’s a worthy upgrade from what you’re doing currently. It’s that simple.
At the price point the Zen Dac is a no-brainer-dumb-reach extraordinaire. You won’t be disappointed. I’m willing to bet the proverbial farm that you’ll actually be impressed. I know I was.
In a nutshell
I score this as a solid B for sound quality and an A+ for value. Highest praise I’ve ever given a product under $150 period. COMING SOON
- review of the Zen Blue **spoiler alert** it’s friggin awesome as well, for different reasons. I'll post it up in the next week or so.